This week, researchers at Stanford released a study about finding the genetic basis of blonde hair .in Northern Europeans. From the press release:
The researchers found that the blond hair commonly seen in Northern Europeans is caused by a single change in the DNA that regulates the expression of a gene that encodes a protein called KITLG, also known as stem cell factor. This change affects how much KITLG is expressed in the hair follicles without changing how it’s expressed in the rest of the body. Introducing the change into normally brown-haired laboratory mice yields an animal with a decidedly lighter coat — not quite Norma Jeane to Marilyn Monroe, but significant nonetheless.
The paper is published in Nature Genetics (behind a paywall, but even if you can’t access the full paper, you can see the abstract and the figures here). As you can see in Figure 5, the control mouse is on the right, and when the researchers manipulated the regulatory region of KITLG and reduced expression, the mouse’s fur became slightly blonder (middle mouse). And predictably, when they increased expression of KITLG, the mouse’s fur became slightly darker (right mouse). As they mention in the press release, and as you can see for yourself, it’s a very subtle change in color (but no less an important finding).
I’m not going to go through the paper and analyze the findings. Rather, I’m going to go over one of the “news” articles that was in my daily feed. The New York Daily News interpreted this study as:
Stanford University scientists revealed that hair color does not affect other genetic traits, proving that blonds are not naturally scatter-brained and redheads are not all fiery.
Wait wait wait…are they saying that blonde jokes aren’t true??? (You can see by the number of question marks that I’ve chosen to use that I’m seriously confused about this issue.) What about the ones with the talking animals in bars? Are those still real? Can a [ethnic stereotype] actually change a lightbulb by themselves? IS ANYTHING BELIEVABLE ANYMORE???
The NY Daily News article relies heavily on the usage of blonde jokes to get its point across. Even the picture associated with the article is captioned, “This woman may or may not be a little ditzy, but scientists have proven that it isn’t simply a result of her hair color.” The main message here is: never pose for stock photos if you are blonde or else your face may be used by a lazy science “journalist” to make bad jokes.
By the way, the paper does not actually discuss redheads not having a “fiery” gene, so that one is still totally up in the air. Get on that, scientists! Hey, while you’re in the lab, can you also tell me if the carpet matches the curtains?
Before you say “The NY Daily News is a tabloid!” you should know that The Telegraph reported this with basically the same headline:
The Telegraph‘s article is better than NY Daily News, but the fact that this passes for science journalism is ridiculous:
But blondes should take heart. Scientists have discovered that hair colour is determined by a single letter of the genetic code – and it is completely unrelated to any other inherited trait.
It means that being blonde has no link to either intelligence or being gregarious.
I would be surprised if the actual research paper touched on the personality or “ditziness” of the mice. Generally, scientists are more concerned that futzing with genes will result in birth defects or other mutations not conducive to life, not necessarily how a mouse would perform in pub trivia.
Before I pass all the blame to the “science” journalists, I was reading through the (mostly very good) press release and found this at the end:
[Dr. Kingsley] added: “It’s clear that this hair color change is occurring through a regulatory mechanism that operates only in the hair. This isn’t something that also affects other traits, like intelligence or personality. The change that causes blond hair is, literally, only skin deep.”
(Emphasis mine.) Gee, why would you even mention that hair color doesn’t affect two random traits like intelligence or personality? Because of blonde jokes? Seriously? No wonder the science journalists went in that direction, even the damn researcher can’t stop himself from making a blonde joke reference. I get it, he was probably trying to make the findings more relatable to the general public. And people who write press releases want to make them “sexy” so that people will read them. But researchers need to understand that even offhand comments can affect what some journalists choose to report on. Instead of going over the more interesting parts of the paper, the articles quoted above went in a “blondes aren’t ditzy!” direction. (I want to note that not all science journalists went in this direction, thank goodness.)
Now that we have scientifically “proven” that blondes aren’t ditzy, will scientists answer questions like: do blondes actually have more fun? Do gentlemen prefer them? Are women genetically inclined to like shoes? If researchers even come close to answering these burning questions, you can bet that the best and brightest science journalists will be there to report on it.